photograph by L.A. Jackson

Okra is a West African plant that’s been a favorite in Southern vegetable gardens for centuries. Now is the time of year to plant this summer-loving annual in our state. But why relegate it just to the veggie patch? Okra is actually a part of the highly ornamental Hibiscus clan and is a handsome plant in foliage and flower. Just the sight of its beautiful blooms should be a clue to the decorative possibilities of this vegetable.

Some okra selections even have special ornamental attributes. The tropical-looking foliage of dwarves ‘Lee’ and ‘Baby Bubba’ make them ideal for slipping into potted plantings or flower borders.

And if you want to see red, try adding some of the crimson-hued okra varieties. ‘Burgundy’ is a flashy, 1988 All-America Selections winner of Ornamental Okra that has deep red stems and leaves streaked with similar coloration, matching the dark red of the tender pods. ‘Red Velvet’ closely compares to ‘Burgundy.’ Small in stature but just as pretty — and productive — is ‘Little Lucy,’ a hybrid dwarf red okra that sports burgundy pods that blend nicely with its maroon-veined foliage.

Even as the summer season draws to a close, okra pods that have grown long and tough can be interesting additions to dried arrangements. Just allow the unpicked pods to dry on their stalks, then add them to indoor creations. Their light brown or reddish cast will lend a subtle, earthy tone to arrangements, but for more glitz, spray-paint the pods. Gold- and metallic-flecked colors make them stand out.

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L.A. Jackson is an editor, writer, and lecturer. Jackson lives in Apex.